The research and writing on what we know as impostor syndrome abounds, and with good reason. People from every walk of life experience it and it’s nearly impossible to get through grad school without the myriad of questions inspired by self-doubt: what happens if my advisor realizes I’m way less experienced and/or well-read than everyone else in my cohort?; am I going to disappoint my advisor with my lack of abilities?; I can’t believe everyone can have such informed opinions on Roland Barthes…why am I just now hearing of him?
Most of those questions are prompted by a lack of self-confidence brought on by comparing oneself to a host of high-achieving, accomplished peers. I think most graduate students are reticent to tackle impostor syndrome head on, because they’re hopeful that it will just slowly dissipate. (At least, that’s how I felt.) I know I was DEFINITELY hopeful that it was a sensation that would stay contained within my graduate school career. But recently I had an experience that caused it to come roaring back. My first thought upon realizing it was back… “Great, now I get to deal with the assistant professor version of this arduous mental health challenge.”
In case you’ve never heard of it…
Time Magazine recently published an article, Yes, Impostor Syndrome is Real: Here’s How to Deal With It, that provides some background information and tips for dealing with this phenomenon that seems to affect so many of us. Forbes published a similar one in December of 2017, Feel Like A Fraud? Here’s How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome. One finding in particular, cited in that article, struck me: perfectionism and impostor syndrome tend to go hand-in-hand.
Let’s go back in time.
My first year in grad school was rough. I was young compared to most of my peers and I had fewer degrees and fewer years of experience, pretty much across the board. After about year two I managed to get through it, in part, by isolating myself away from people who made me doubt myself. I realized that there was a toxic environment in my home department wherein everyone was feeling self-doubt, no one was admitting it, and people would mobilize their knowledge or experience intentionally against fellow grad students in an attempt to soothe their own fears.
So for example…when asking a fellow student in my department what they did over the weekend, I’d often get a response that included reading some heavy-handed theorist I’d never heard of in an attempt to put that individual’s work into dialogue with their own. Yuck. I wanted to hear what movie you went to see or what spin class you took. My question about your weekend wasn’t an invitation to name-drop to make me feel bad about myself and make you feel slightly better. Those people got cut out of my life. I stopped asking them about their weekends. Imposter syndrome: CURED. It seems like an overly simplistic fix, but it resulted in an immediate paradigm shift.
Fighting the Feeling You’re a Phonie on the Job Market
I can trace the same sort of trajectory alongside my experience on the job market. Initially, I panicked and tried to prepare every possible interview question under the sun for fear that the hiring committee would “catch” me and discover that I was unqualified for the position at their institution. It was exhausting. And to be honest, it probably didn’t make for very good interviews. I was probably so worried about the next question I MIGHT get asked that I fumbled the one I was currently answering. In hindsight, I wish I could tell previous versions of myself to take a deep-breath and not worry about what the “right” answer to questions is. Don’t get me wrong…I do believe that there is such a thing as a wrong answer. I just think there are lots of right ones.
What I feel I gleaned from my experiences on the job market is that you often don’t get selected for a job interview or campus visit because of something that has nothing to do with you. So for example, the job posting said an institution was looking for someone who works in Anthropology in the Andean region, but then the other Latin American anthropologist gives their notice…so now all of a sudden the hiring committee is looking to see if anyone who applied for the job has a more pan-Latin American project. How were you supposed to know that would happen? I wish I could tell my former self that the best version of me is the real one and that I can’t be everything to everyone, so I should just be me and be genuine about what I can offer. If they’re interested, great! Naturally, that perspective only came from the comfortable position of securing a job.
Imposter Syndrome 102: Assistant Professor Variety
Having gotten through all of that, now I’m here, in my new department, surrounded by incredibly capable people. I again feel like the faculty member who tricked everyone into thinking I belong. We’re a really young department, which means that a lot of us are assistant professors with a lot of energy and a lot to prove. I think this likely exacerbates the problem, because its hard not to think of other assistant professors as competition or as somehow the standard you should be meeting. After all, a similar tenure committee will assemble to decide your respective fates.
In particular, I have one colleague who is the bright shining star of the department. They are not only on every committee under the sun, they are spear-heading two new university-wide initiatives, teaching innovative courses with lesson plans that expose students to all that our field has to offer, coordinating entire sections of department curricula, publishing articles in top-tier journals, and supervising undergraduate research. WHAT?!? And to make matters worse, they are only one year ahead of me in the race to tenure, so the bar feels as though it is unreachable.
Meanwhile, I’m over here trying to figure out how to use our Blackboard-like digital interface to communicate with students and get a sense of how the textbook is laid out. It’s hard not to mitigate the disappointment at what feels like my snail-paced adjustment. Because new faculty are evaluated on their collegiality and ability to fit-in (in practice, but not on paper, of course) cutting people who cause me to feel small out of my life isn’t an option here.
An Embarrassing Mis-Step
I’d say I was handling all of it relatively well until I really revealed just how un-seasoned I am. During my graduate school career, I won an award for graduate student research in my field. Imagine my delight upon seeing that the organization that gave it to me is holding elections for their board. Eager to participate in an organization I’ve long admired, I self-nominated.
It turns out I was way too eager. I didn’t realize that my application would get circulated to the entire membership…and, thus, my materials were not properly tailored. I also didn’t realize that people were going to write 2000+ words on their intellectual qualifications for the position. (A fact I’m painfully aware of because their materials got circulated, too.) Instead, my simple self-nomination stated that I feel I represent the interests of junior faculty in our field. I also stated that I have had my scholarship reinvigorated thanks to funding and programming from the organization, so I see it as a great way to be of service to a group of scholars who were of service to me.
In this organization-wide email, I look wildly infantile. My application is silly and trivial next to the other 5 self-nominations. So here I was trying to put on a grown-up academic hat and, as it turns out, the hat is way too big. Which brings me to a…
PRO-TIP: When considering throwing your name in the ring for a leadership position, don’t be afraid to email the organization’s secretary and ask:
- Does the organization and its membership consider junior faculty for leadership roles?
- What do the application letters of interest typically look like? / Is it possible to see the application of last year’s elected official to get a sense of how to shape my application?
There you have it. Hope you take that advice seriously so you don’t end up looking like a newb in an email sent out to hundreds of people in your field.
More to come at a later date. If I figure out how to handle the feeling you aren’t qualified to be in your job, I promise to let you know. In the meantime, know you’re not alone.